Building Smart From the Ground Up – SEO and Site Architecture

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Just like in commercial or residential construction, good site architecture is based on a strong foundation at the base, and supporting structures that keep the entire thing from collapsing. In the case of a website, the foundation is the home page, and the structures that keep it all together are based around internal linking.

Site Architecture Explained

Website architecture is the way that a site is interconnected from one page to another. In a very basic website, this could be five pages for a local small business all linked from the home page. In a larger sense, imagine an international retail website offering hundreds of thousands of products, each with its own webpage (or pages).

The challenge of site architecture is to make each part of the puzzle easily accessible for users and search engines alike.

Many successful site architectures start with a basic hierarchy, spreading out like a pyramid from the top-down, with the homepage at the apex. The home page links out to categories, which then link out to web pages or other subcategories that pertain to the one before it.

Image from The Duke University Libraries, “Information Architecture Plans for the Library Website”

In more complicated versions with internal linking from relevant pages to others, the site architecture may be based around hubs with spokes, with relevance spanning between high-level categories.

Quality of User Experience

While the goal of search engine optimization (SEO) is to get visitors to your site, a good user experience (UX) will keep them on your site and help create a higher conversion rate. Information architecture, or in this case, site architecture, is an important part of the entire user experience. Organization of pages that follow a logical pattern will be much easier for a visitor to find what they are looking for.

For example, consider a user who is looking to buy spark plugs for a 1974 Mustang with a 2.8L V6. A search term that could bring them directly to a product page with that exact item might be “buy mustang spark plugs 1974 2.8L,” but not everyone searches this way.

Search results for “buy mustang spark plugs 1974 2.8L”

To provide an extreme example of a potential customer starting with a higher-level search query, let’s say that they search for “Mustang spark plugs.” Once they visit a website from their search results, they will still need to be able to find the correct part for their specific engine. The ease in which they can find that result is based around site architecture.

A site-based search engine, while at first glance may be the easiest way to find desired information, comes with its own issues. Once again, higher-level searches may send the visitor to a similar, or incorrect page that does not satisfy their search intent. If this occurs, it is more than likely that they will exit the site from frustration.

An example of solid site architecture for this use case would be the following:

  • Customer lands on a page for Mustang spark plugs
  • Options are available to select the year the car was produced
  • Sub-options are available for engine models produced that year
  • Once the engine model is selected, matching spark plugs available are listed
  • Throughout the process, related items such as matching spark plug wires are also displayed.

Giving site visitors easy paths to discover the product or information they originally intended to find is the main intent of a well-planned site architecture.

Ease of Search Engine Crawling

Well designed site architecture helps not only humans, but also robots, navigate your website. Google and the other search engines use automatic “spiders” to crawl websites from link to link, gathering data on the pages they encounter, taking information from both the pages themselves as well as the links pointing to them.

Creating an easily mapped and logical path to each page on your site is important to keep search engines happy. From the most basic viewpoint, if a search engine spider cannot find a page on your website, it will not add that page to its database, and it will not appear in search results. It is important to avoid what are called “orphan pages,” or pages that do not have any links pointing to them.

Googlebot, Google’s main spidering engine, operates on a “crawl budget.” This means it will generally limit its crawling of your site to a certain amount per day. Site architecture that leads it in confusing directions, or points to unimportant or broken parts of your website, may prevent it from cataloging the parts of your website that you deem the most important.

Make sure you have adequate links and references to the pages that give you the most value.

Googlebot's crawl depth analysis

Crawl depth is the number of times a visitor, whether human or otherwise, needs to click to reach a web page on the site. A high number of clicks to get to a page equals a higher crawl depth. The importance of a page to a website is generally related to a lower crawl depth – the closer to the home page, the better.

Internal Linking, SEO, and Site Architecture

Search engines no longer just try to understand the pages on your website, they also attempt to understand the site itself and how the site as a whole should be categorized. In this way, especially for Google and its RankBrain AI, the overall rank for a website for certain keywords can be established.

Relevance plays a key role in search engine ranking and categorization. Links directly from the homepage don’t apply to categorization as much because top-level links are considered germane to the entire site, but further internal links can benefit from added relevancy.

Taking our spark plug example from before, all pages related to “spark plugs” that are linked together will improve their potential SEO ranking for the term “spark plugs” and related keywords.

Notice in the screenshot below the different spark plug related results that appear and the different categories they are located in. This is achieved through a well-designed site architecture based on internal linking. Results range from pages to purchase spark plugs on to DIY blog posts.

Screenshot for the search results for different spark plug related results and the different categories they are located in

An important note for anyone using WordPress or other similar automated CMS platforms: older pages may fall off of high-level automatically generated category pages, so be sure to have links from other related pages pointing to them.

Wrapping Up

The pathway that a human or robot visitor to each page on your website should always be planned ahead. The ease, or lack thereof, in which someone can find the information they need on your website will either have them either become your customer or your competitor’s customer. Well structured sites will also rank higher in search engines due to the ease in which they can decipher what is important about the website.

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Jared Bauman

Jared Bauman is the Co-Founder of 201 Creative, and is a 20+ year entrepreneur who has started and sold several companies. He is the host of the popular Niche Pursuits podcast and a contributing author to Search Engine Land.